Posts from January 2015
January 31st, 2015
I’ve often been asked – indeed, I often ask myself – why on Earth I’d continue to read a magazine as politically zealous, not to say crackpot, as the National Review, and my answer – given a few times even here on Stevereads – is that I try my best to ignore the frong half of every issue and focus instead on the book reviews in the back half, where I can often find good stuff. The 9 February issue was a good case-in-point: the front half was full of the usual hateful, mean-spirited, vile, adolescent ad hominem garbage that has, alas, come to characterize the 21st-century Republican Party: idiotic sneers at the very idea that women might face systematic discrimination, or that a gigantic federal government might have even the slightest moral obligation to help out its poorest citizens, or that the reckless actions of the industrial West are turning Earth’s climate into that of equatorial Venus (this issue also featured a cartoon of President Obama dressed as an ISIL terrorist, in case you were wondering), etc., every article interspersed with full-page ads for all-Tea Party cruises where your Captain’s Table pundits will regale you with spellbinding stories about money.
But in the back of the issue, there was some good stuff. Michael Knox Beran, for instance, became the latest reviewer to call Andrew Roberts’ new Napoleon Bonaparte biography a masterpiece even while politely disagreeing with all of its central claims; the book put me in the exact same bind a couple of months ago.
And since the National Review caters to the wingnut presses, they’ll often have reviews of books not even I, with my indefatigable catalogue-trawling, would ever hear of. There’s a review of one such book in this issue. It’s put out by the Brookings Institution’s press, and it’s called The Professor and the President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House by Stephen Hess. I’ve always been fascinated by Moynihan (and I very much enjoyed Greg Weiner’s new book about him, American Burke), so I was naturally interested to read the review, titled “An Odd Couple for the Ages” and written by James Rosen.
Rosen says the book is written with “scholarly care and memoirist’s flair,” and that it’s “a brisk, lively read, a concise and shrewdly observed portrait of an unlikely political alliance” … but by far the most remarkable part of his review came under the noxious book reviewer humble-bragging tag of “full disclosure,” where the reviewer usually confesses to having had a friendly chat with the author once years ago at the country club they once shared until they both quit when the place started admitting black people (what can I say? As the old saying goes, when you lie down with the National Review, you wake up in a gated community with alcoholic children and a wife who hates you). To put it mildly, Rosen takes this concept to new territories:
(Full disclosure: Steve hess has been a friend since college days, when I took a course he taught; and like every other reporter in Washington, where Hess has spent 40 years at the Brookings Institution, I’ve quoted him many times. As he notes in his acknowledgements section, I aided his research for this book by supplying documents I had reviewed for my book on Watergate. He appeared on my online program, The Foxhole, to promote the book, in December; my criticism here will dispel any intimation of favoritism)
I confess, by the second line I was chuckling out loud over my Makchang gui. But it was a melancholy chuckling all the same: here, writ small (and absurd – what Rosen describes is not “full disclosure” but “screaming conflict of interest”), was the exact same kind of unethical effontery that the front half of the magazine so viciously and openly champions, where a thing can be patently, visibly wrong – whether it be oil-drilling in beautiful wildlife preserves or writing an extended piece of ad work for your best friend’s book – and still be done, openly done, proudly done. That’s not just crappy book-reviewing – that’s the entire political party that currently runs this country.
So maybe it’s time to wean myself off the National Review and its ilk? Full disclosure: I’ve already started doing just that.
January 25th, 2015
Some days in the Penny Press are more frustrating than others, of course, and sometimes those weeks offer clear signals of their intent to get my knickers in a twist. This happened just yesterday, in fact, when I took my first clear look at Barry Blitt’s imbecilic cover to the 26 January New Yorker, which is titled “The Dream of Reconciliation” and shows Martin Luther King marching arm-in-arm with a quartet of people who have only one thing in common: their complete indifference to any cause King ever marched for or cared about (at least two of the four people pictured marching with King, if they’d seen this cover, wouldn’t have been able to identify him). The false equivalence on display there – the fat, contented, Upper West Side substitute for thinking, the idea that if you die by police-related violence, you must have died in some noble struggle – well, it grated, at least to the extent that New Yorker covers ever can.
Frustration got worse inside the issue, although for different reasons. Jill Lepore, the magazine’s best writer, certainly doesn’t ever frustrate for pulling any substitutes for thinking; she’s as smart a writer as they come. No, it’s her subject this time around that caused the frustration – the subject of the impermanence of the Internet. The piece is called “The Cobweb,” and although it’s meant to offer a gleam of hope, it could scarcely be more frutrating for somebody who’s helped to build a thing like Open Letters Monthly online.
“The average life of a Web page is about a hundred days,” Lepore reports in the process of describing a project designed to archive Internet contents, “It’s like trying to stand on quicksand.” And the picture doesn’t get any rosier when she shifts he emphasis to more scholarly works:
The footnote, a landmark in the history of civilization, took centuries to invent and to spread. It has taken mere nearly to destroy. A footnote used to say, “Here is how I know this and where I found it.” A footnote that’s a link says, “Here is what I used to know and where I once found it, but chances are it’s not there anymore.” It doesn’t matter whether footnotes are your stock-in-trade. Everybody’s in a pinch. Citing a Web page as the source for something you know – using a URL as evidence – is ubiquitous. Many people find themselves doing it three or four times before breakfast and five times more before lunch. What happens when your evidence vanishes by dinnertime?
The piece made me want to have a stock-taking talk with Robert Minto, OLM‘s newest editor and the only one of us who’s as comfortable with code as codicils … to see if there’s anything to be done about the quicksand.
January 13th, 2015
Naturally, reading Louis Menand’s story in the January 5 New Yorker, “Pulp’s Big Moment,” sent me irresistably to my own bookshelves, specifically to the bookcases of mass-market paperbacks I’ve been ruthlessly pillaging lately (as I’ve aggrievedly mentioned already, nobody needs four different mass market paperback copies of Mansfield Park; the ability to resist the urge to buy a duplicate of a book simply because I happen to like the book has been very, very slow blossoming inside me, but I do believe I’ve finally got it), in search of exactly the kind of so-cheesy-they’re-great pulp paperbacks Menand describes.
“You can’t tell a book by its cover,” Menand writes, “but you can certainly sell one that way. To reach a mass market, paperback publishers put the product in a completely different wrapper. The pulp-paperback cover became a distinctive mid-century art form …” And Menand mentions specifically one such ‘art form’ that I immediately found on my own shelves: the old Signet mass market (“Good Reading for the Millions”) of The Catcher in the Rye, showing a scarfed and overcoated young man, presumably Holden Caufield, confronting the seedy nightlife of peep shows and loose women with only his deerstalker cap and overnight suitcase to sustain him. Menand reminds his readers that it was J. D. Salinger himself who later insisted on the book’s iconic, boring all-maroon design.
In my search I found a few more of these brownish-gold old pulp-style paperbacks, which delighted me (since I usually no longer find anything at all that I’m looking for)(this will all be solved by the Grand Inventory) – including the first that came to hand, Nora Loft’s delicious 1963 Tudor novel The Concubine, with its banner: “For this woman a king discarded his wife and child, defied the Pope, and destroyed his oldest friend.” Flipping through this surprisingly sturdy little volume, I was reminded of how good it is, how assured Lofts is at shifting moods even in the same scene:
“In Cranmer,” Henry went on complacently, “I shall have a Primate prepared to acknowledge me as Head of the Church, and to declare that I am a bachelor, and have been all along.”
She said, “Yes, Cranmer is very … pliable.” She spoke in an abstracted tone and did not look at Henry, but away, over the loop of shining river to the fields where the harvest was in progress, the harvesters burnt as brown as the sheaves they handled. She was suffering from one of her intermittent attacks of feeling insecure.
Another of these old metal-rack paperbacks I found was Frederick Pottle’s 1956 edition of Boswell’s London Journal with its happy, colorful cover giving us an idealized glimpse of Georgian London on a sunny day. The reality of course could be far less sunny, as even a random entry from Boswell can show, like this one from Thursday, 17 November 1762:
We chatted a good deal. Stewart told me that some blacks in India were attacking their boat in order to plunder it, and that he shot two with his own hand. In the afternoon between Stamford and Stilton there was a young unruly horse in the chaise which run away with the driver, and jumping to one side of the road, we were overturned. We got a pretty severe rap. Stewart’s head and my arm were somewhat hurt. However, we got up and pursued our way. During our two last stages this night, which we travelled in the dark, I was a good deal afraid of robbers. A great many horrid ideas filled my mind. There is no passion so distressing as fear, which gives us great pain and makes us appear contemptible in our own eyes to the last degree. However, I affected resolution, and as each of us carried a loaded pistol in his hand, we were pretty secure.
And the last of the little paperbacks I found this time around was Parrish, the masterpiece and bestseller by Mildred Savage of Norwich, Connecticut, here issued in a “Giant Cardinal Edition” from 1958, with a cover blaring about the Warner Bros. movie starring Claudette Colbert, Karl Malden, and an absolutely dreamy Troy Donahue: “Parrish is just eighteen now – unsure, innocent, alone. But in the violence of ambition and the scorch of passion, that boy will be forged into a man.”
Much as I love the odd individuality of these little paperbacks, finding them and flipping through them all really made me realize both how fragile they are (their binding holds up surprisingly well, but their pulp paper is now frittering away) and how impractical they are for long-term keeping or re-reading. That was one of the points of Menand’s article, actually: these things were manufactured on the cheap and pumped out to every drugstore, train station, and bowling alley in the country – they were never intended to be a permanent part of anybody’s library.
They’ll stay in mine until they can’t be read any longer … but I’ll be keeping an eye out for newer, sturdier versions.
January 6th, 2015
Beginning any new year always means batting clean-up on the odds and ends of the old year, and this latest transition was no different: I wrapped up my annals of the Penny Press in mid-December, but the Penny Press didn’t know that – it kept pouring into the sainted Open Letters Monthly Post Office box regardless of what bloviating I was doing here at Stevereads, and so it’s only natural that there’d be stragglers.
Take the December 19 & 26 issue of the TLS, for instance, in which Kathryn Murphy does a very good review of the English-language translation of Ivan Klima’s My Crazy Century, although she points out “cultural references are not glossed, and the essays, which appeared interspersed with the biographical chapters in the original, are presented without any explanations.” I reviewed Klima’s book here and have thought about it quite a bit since then (I haven’t bothered to hunt for it on my bookshelves, since I think we both know it won’t be there anymore)(*sigh*).
Or, in the same issue, a very engaging review of Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great (which I reviewed here under its timid American title Napoleon: A Life) by the redoubtable Victor David Hanson, who points out quite rightly, “It is a tribute to Roberts the distinterested scholar and the fair-minded historian that there is evidence collected in this vast and intellectually honest work that can be used to question the author’s own favourable assessments of Napoleon’s career.” Certainly I’ve been questioning plenty of Roberts’ assessments in the weeks since I reviewed it.
And a real highlight among the straggles was the cover story for the January/February issue of The Atlantic, a stinging essay by James Fallows called “The Tragedy of the American Military,” in which he analyzes in damning detail deep-seated flaws in both the philosophy and the tactics of the U.S. military, and he very much spreads some blame to the American populace itself:
Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name.
The article includes a very powerful insert by Robert Scales, who links his own experiences commanding troops in combat in Vietnam with the current shocking state of U.S. military equipment:
With few modifications, the weapon that killed my soldiers almost 50 years ago is killing our soldiers today in Afghanistan. General Ripley’s ghost is with us still. During my 35 years in the Army, it became clear to me that from Gettysburg to Hamburger Hill to the streets of Baghdad, the American penchant for arming troops with lousy rifles has been responsible for a staggering number of unnecessary deaths. Over the next few decades, the Department of Defense will spend more than $1 trillion on F-35 stealth fighter jets that after nearly 10 years of testing have yet to be deployed to a single combat zone. But bad rifles are in soldiers’ hands in every combat zone.
True, the enormous majority of the rest of the issue’s contents was decidedly lackluster (and let’s not even talk about its literary coverage in these bleak post-Schwarz days), but that piece by Fallows will be in the much-contested running for the Best of the Penny Press honors here at Stevereads in Decemeber.
March 2nd, 2012
I fully expected to go back to happily making Stevereads entries about William Ellery Channing and Ellen Sturgis Hooper, to wile away my next 1000 entries writing about dogs, Kennedys, and Taylor Lautner, but then the cover of the latest Weekly Standard caught my eye. It’s a classic Thomas Fluharty masterpiece, showing a team of workers trying to scrub down and decontaminate a Lincoln Memorialesque statue of President Clinton, and as usual, it repays close study (my favorite detail is the guy swabbing Clinton’s ear). And once hooked, I was naturally curious about the accompanying Andrew Ferguson article, “The Big Creep,” reminding readers that there was once a time when Bill Clinton wasn’t quite the beatific elder statesman he seems today. That would have been enough to make me buy the issue (one doesn’t subscribe to The Weekly Standard – that’s what Hell is for, after all), but there’s also the fact that I’ve sometimes found good book reviews in the back pages of the magazine, and I’m willing to go pretty much anywhere for good book reviews.
If only I’d refrained! If only I’d read the Clinton article (fun stuff though incomplete-feeling, Ferguson’s B-game) and then donated the issue to the nearest right-wing nutjob! But no – I was enticed by the lead-article in the book review section, something called “The Great American Novel – Will There Ever Be Another?” by Roger Kimball, the current editor and publisher of the New Criterion. Articles with titles like that invariably entice me even though I ought to know better, so I started reading.
The thing starts this way:
A couple of years ago, I was asked to give a talk about “The American Novel Today.” It wasn’t my first choice of topic, frankly, partly because I read as few contemporary novels as possible, partly (here we get into cause and effect) because most of the novels that get noticed today (like most of the visual art that gets the Establishment’s nod) should be filed under the rubric “ephemera,” and often pretty nasty ephemera at that.
I should have stopped right there, obviously. When Kimball says he doesn’t want to give lectures about the American novel today because he doesn’t read the American novel today, you can just hear the walrus clearing his throat for a full barrage of blimpisms – he isn’t confessing his ignorance of the subject as a preface to bowing out or (Heaven forfend) learning anything, oh no: he’s saying he reads as few contemporary novels as possible as a wink to his fellow blimps in the audience – I steer clear of THAT crowd!
He goes on:
I do not, you may be pleased to read, propose to parade before you a list of those exercises in evanescence, self-parody, and general ickiness that constitute so much that congregates under the label of American fiction these days.
Obviously he doesn’t propose to do that, we might respond, since he’s already admitted he doesn’t know anything about American fiction these days, although these blimpisms are certainly starting to give the impression he doesn’t expect us to believe him, aren’t they? And it just gets worse:
We get a lot of new novels at my office. I often pick up a couple and thumb through them just to keep up with what is on offer in the literary bourse. The delicate feeling of nausea that ensues as my eye wanders over these bijoux is as difficult to describe as it is predictable. The amazing thing is that it takes only a sentence or two before the feeling burgeons in the pit of the stomach and the upper lip grows moist with sweat.
To put it mildly, I know the feeling. This is a pretty exact enactment of the kind of bloated, self-satisfied, reactionary bloviating that very likely infuriated the college-age Kimball. That young man, trudging across some high-priced campus, head crammed with eager reading, probably would have said, “God, save me from ever being the kind of clueless, stuffed-shirt windbag who thinks it’s impressive to talk about dismissing a novel after glancing at its first two sentences! Anything but that!” And that younger Kimball would have been entirely correct: anybody who’s comfortable windifying about bijoux so blithely has left the path of righteousness. He’s become a bourse-hole.
No one, I submit, would pay good money for a college education and then be expected to ruminate over the fine points of what is proffered to us by the fiction industry today.
But you’ve already admitted you don’t read what the fiction industry offers today … that opening blimpism isn’t going anywhere, and since it invalidates anything that could appear in the rest of the essay, it would be entirely fair – snotty, but fair – to simply keep repeating it after every subsequent jowly pronouncement about Matthew Arnold or Samuel Johnson or Henry James. All three of those make their ritual appearances complete with hatcheted quotes wiki-plucked out of context:
Matthew Arnold once described literature as “a criticism of life.” He looked to literature, to culture generally, to provide the civilizing and spiritually invigorating function that religion had provided for earlier ages. And to a large extent, culture proved itself up to the task. Horace once said that the aim of poetry was to delight and instruct. For much of its history, literature has been content to stress the element of delight; to provide what Henry James, in an essay on the future of the novel, described as “the great anodyne.” If a tale could beguile an idle hour, that was enough.
It should almost go without saying that nothing – and I mean nothing at all – in that paragraph is right. The quote-fragments, the silly attributions (“Horace once said,” like Kimball is remembering his Delmonico’s table talk), the shallowing of deep thoughts, the sloppy equating of “literature” with, by the look of things, “French bedroom novels,” the idiotic reduction of a big, bristling literary tradition to “tales” that could beguile an idle hour, etc. – all of this is just the worst kind of brainless stump-speech generalizing, along the lines of the junk-bond candidate who opens his remarks with something dumb and crowd-pleasing like “in olden times, people knew what was right.” It is, in a word, nonsense – so I really should have stopped reading. But the roadside skidding kept happening:
The Yale literary critic Geoffrey Hartman once wrote a book called The Fate of Reading; It is not, in my judgment, a very good book, but it would have been if Professor Hartman got around to addressing the subject announced in his provocative title.
Except that The Fate of Reading is a collection of essays, not one an organic book, and Professor Hartman does ‘get around’ to addressing the subject of his title, in the essay by that title. Nausea must have set in before Kimball could notice that. Certainly the dire state of kids these days would keep his brow nice and sweaty:
The problem with computers is not the worlds they give us instant access to but the world they encourage us to neglect. Everyone knows about the studies showing the bad effects on children and teenagers of too much time in cyberspace (or in front of the television set). It cuts them off from their family and friends, fosters asocial behavior, disrupts their ability to concentrate, and makes it harder for them to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Again, no, not hardly, nothing, nothing at all. The ‘studies’ that ‘everyone knows’ about aren’t cited here, of course (no doubt they were conducted in olden times!), but Kimball’s claims about them are just more liberal-baiting nonsense. Kids these days have never been more in touch with their friends and family, and their knowledge of reality eclipses that of any other generation the world has ever seen. Gassy lines like the ones in that quote not only strongly suggest that Kimball doesn’t know any actual children or teenagers but that he might go days or even weeks without consulting the opinions of anybody in the world beside himself.
His point, once you wade through all the nonsense and blimpish garbage, is that modern society just doesn’t care about novels as seriously as earlier ages did, and that has abetted their degeneration. Time has worked against the genre:
It has often been observed that the novel is the bourgeois art form per excellence: that in its primary focus on domestic manners and morals, its anatomy of private vices and exercise of private virtues, it answered the spiritual needs of a specific historical epoch.
With the passing or maturation of that epoch, perhaps the novel, too, has matured or even graduated to the second infancy or senility …
I trust by now you all already know: yep, nonsense. Utter nonsense. What the hell ‘historical epoch’ covers the roughly 350 years since the ‘modern’ English novel was developed? Or is Kimball perhaps talking about the ‘historical epoch’ encompasses the thousand years since Tale of Genji hit the Barnes & Noble front tables? This is the kind of crappy from-the-hip junk-writing that would get torpedoed in any self-respecting high school English class in the country (to say nothing of the red, pulpy mass it would be after a good thorough Open Letters editorial car-wash).
And of course the most troubling thing about the whole piece isn’t the bumbling blimpisms of one writer who’s a trifle too proud of his provincialism – the most troubling thing is that The Weekly Standard would print such a waffly jeremiad, a wandering elderly rant taking ill-conceived pot-shots at a genre that can use as many fans as it can get. Kimball is (accidentally, no doubt) right about one implication: high book costs, lowering literacy standards, and increased entertainment distractions have all taken a toll on the number of readers who’ll try contemporary novels (although Kimball is dead wrong in his implication that before the Internet and evil old TV people were free of such distractions and therefore happily reading – there’s always been beer, and sex, and beer-sodden sex). What he’s wrong about he’s very, very wrong about, and starts out wrong right at the beginning, with the invocation of that tired old concept, ‘the great American novel.’ Only people who never actually read fiction ever use that trite old tag – everybody else knows that there are lots of great American novels … a new one comes out virtually every year, and although none of them is ever by Philip Roth, all of them speak to the ‘manners and morals’ of their day, in ways that are every bit as important and challenging as the ways Crime and Punishment (that idle hour laff-riot) or Moll Flanders spoke to theirs.
Kimball should load up on his ativan and actually venture beyond the first two sentences of some of those novels he gets for free, but he’d need an open mind for that – and judging by this wretched essay, I’m not sure he has one. If his blimpish negligence ever gives him qualms, I’m happy to make recommendations.
And in the meantime, how nice it would be to turn to something that didn’t give me agita! A nice Vanity Fair retrospective on Ronnie & Nancy Reagan, for instance, or a luscious Helen Vendler essay on George Herbert in the TLS, or perhaps the informative and always-soothing samplings of Birdwatcher’s Digest, where our feathered friends are never bloatishly compared to birds of olden times, and where no fathead authors claim that ‘everyone knows’ today’s birds are asocial loners with no culture. And the nests these birds are building these days! My upper lip is moist already!
February 27th, 2012
The prospect of a new London Review of Books leading off with a luxuriously long review of Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of Homer’s Iliad filled me with passionate expectation (‘expectation’ because my subscription’s copy was its customary week late, sigh). It’s the sort of gloriously nerdy thing the LRB can be relied upon to do; even in an issue half-devoured by long political essays (as this one was), the journal’s devotion to the whole spectrum of books couldn’t be clearer.
Then I read Edward Luttwak’s review.
I read a lot of reviews, and I also write a lot of reviews (indeed, I wrote a review of Mitchell’s Iliad myself, at the end of 2011) – I think it’s safe to say I know reviews fairly well. I haven’t yet in 2012 read a review as bad as this one. It manages to be boring, priggish, superfluous, and clueless all at the same time. I’m no great fan of the approach Mitchell took in his Iliad, but he could have rendered Homer’s great epic in limericks and he’d still deserve a better review than this one.
Luttwak starts off as poorly as a reviewer can: by using a gimmick that he means to be impressive but that instead annihilates any trust the reader might have in him going in:
At the beginning of January, in the bookshop of Terminal 2 at San Francisco airport, I looked for a translation of the Iliad – not that I really expected to find one. But there were ten: one succinct W.H.D. Rouse prose translation and one Robert Graves, in prose and song, both in paperback; two blank verse Robert Fagles in solid covers; one rhythmic Richmond Lattimore with a lengthy new introduction; and three hardback copies of the new Stephen Mitchell translation, with refulgent golden shields on the cover and several endorsements on the back …
What, no Cowper? The gimmick here is to somehow work in a glancing mention of previous renditions of the Iliad, presumably to warn readers off thinking our reviewer has never heard of the poem before. It’s a standard gimmick when reviewing an oft-translated work, and it suffers here only from location, location, location. “Having before me the new Harvard University Press Annotated Emerson, I recalled that my teenage son liked Emerson. I wandered into his room in search of a copy – not that I really expected to find one. But there were ten, including an 1841 first edition with rare pornographic doodles by the author. Briefly pausing to wonder how my son raised the $450,000 asking price, I read on …”
The rest of the review – and there’s a lot of rest – just gets worse. After pointlessly raising the question of why the Iliad is so popular, Luttwak gets in an elbow when the refs aren’t looking: “Some of course – nasty fellows – would widen the explanation by seeing Americans as a whole as war-lovers, hence war-book addicts, hence Iliad buyers.” And he’s the worst kind of shot-taker: the kind who then wide-eyedly denies he did it:
That’s lame to begin with, for there are countless ways of getting that fix much more easily than by reading 15, 693 lines of hieratic verse bound to offend military history buffs, because of both the extreme, pervasive emotionalism – all the weeping wives of other war books are outdone by the floods of tears of Homer’s greatest warriors – and the frequent confusion of the battle tactics of two different eras.
Not so lame that Luttwak didn’t suggest it, though – no matter how scurrilously he then tries to un-suggest it. He uses the national suggestion as a spring-board to an absolutely incredibly long digression on Homer in China and Japan – a thousand-word tangent I read with mounting incredulity, wondering what on Earth the piece’s editor could have been thinking to leave it in, or even if the piece had an editor. On my copy I’d no sooner read this huge digression than I drew a thick ‘X’ through all of it, and I hope that if he ever reads it, the even-tempered Mitchell does the same.
But when Luttwak finally remembered to start reviewing Mitchell, I almost wished for the digression back again. His actual consideration of Mitchell’s Iliad was as windy and oleaginous and miserably self-absorbed as anything I’ve read since Harold Bloom at his worst and most phoned-in. The reeking false modesty of this section is so soiling that any lingering authority Luttwak might have had is almost instantly subsumed in the reader’s desire to dunk his head in the nearest toilet. “It’s not that I would hazard to challenge the merits of Mitchell’s translation …” “I am scarcely an authority on translating anything from any language…” “Nor would I presume to impugn Mitchell’s qualifications as a translator of the peculiar Homeric mixture of archaic Ionic with some Aeolic (Sappho’s dialect), bits of more recent Attic no doubt derived from its written stage, and even some faint remnants of the Mycenaean Greek of the previous millennium …” “In my own ignorance I do not impugn his mastery of Homeric Greek …”
GET it? You do GET it, right? He keeps professing his own humbly-bumbly ignorance of Lord, just everything, while working in all those sly little informed asides to make sure you don’t believe him. It’s an oily, wheedling sort of party-ploy I honestly thought went out with the hula hoop; all the things he assures us he wouldn’t dream of doing are things you know instantly he’s going to spend the rest of the review doing, and he does. I would not presume my bony Irish ass: Luttwak opens this section by admonishing us that he’s no expert, he’s just a stranger here, an innocent bystander who happened to wander into Terminal 2 of the San Francisco airport. But we groundlings better not take him at his word, or there’ll be trouble; Mark Twain was the last person to do this correctly – all the others, Luttwak at the head of them, hurry to counteract any possibility that we might think them humble. Only a few lines after all that faux-humility crap, we get paragraphs opening like this:
The earlier date, moreover, opens the door for the evidence extracted from deciphered Hittite cuneiform tablets, irrelevant to a ninth-century BCE or later Iliad, because the last remnant of that empire had been extinguished by then, but contemporary with Mycenaean Greek life over the previous thousand years. Much fuller use of new archaeological evidence is being incorporated in the monumental (one volume per Homeric book) and wonderful Basler Homer-Kommentar by Anton Bierl and Joachim Latacz …
And so on. Which doesn’t for an instant “impugn” Mitchell, whether it should or not. No, the gambit itself only has the effect of making Luttwak himself come off as hateful, petty, preening, and drastically over-compensating. When a reviewer tries to establish his authority by such archly mugging mannerisms, he permanently alienates his readers’ sympathies – none of those readers will finish this piece thinking Mitchell got anything like a fair reading, especially since, again unbelievably, the piece’s last 1000 words don’t even mention the book allegedly being reviewed, nor anything about translating in general or translating this book in particular. Instead, it’s just another long digression, this time on violence in Homer.
This issue of the LRB had great stuff in it – most especially a wonderful dual-review by Rosemary Hill of two new books on Prince Albert and a quick, rousing inquiry by the great Charles Nicholl into a historical footnote from Vasari – and that’s a lucky thing, because great stuff in abundance was needed, to wash out the rancid taste of that long opening piece.
February 22nd, 2012
Once you hold your nose and get past Bruce McCall’s predictable, boring cover for the 27 Feb New Yorker, you have a genuine treat waiting for you inside: a great article called “Beware of the Dogs” by somebody writing under the pseudonym of “Burkhard Bilger” (in anticipation of the tsunami of innuendo I’m sure is coming, I should state for the record that I am not, in fact, “Burkhard Bilger”), all about the dogs (and trainers) of the New York City canine units. The author, whoever he is, does a great job – this is one of those sui generis pieces that could only really look natural in the New Yorker, one of those pieces that makes me glad all over again that there is such a thing as the New Yorker.
“Burkhard Bilger” shadows some NYC canine crime units and visits their training facilities, meeting the men (good-natured and well-adjusted, the lot of them) who do the training and the entirely superior beings who submit to being trained:
A good dog is a natural super-soldier: strong yet acrobatic, fierce yet obedient. It can leap higher than most men, and run twice as fast. Its eyes are equipped for night vision, its ears for supersonic hearing, its mouth for subduing the most fractious prey. But its true glory is its nose. In the nineteen-seventies, researchers found that dogs could detect even a few particles per million of a substance; in the nineties, more subtle instruments lowered the threshold to particles per billion; the most recent tests have brought it down to particles per trillion.
The image of police dogs took something of a collateral hit when the country saw photos of U.S. military dogs being used to terrify illegally detained foreign prisoners, and the NYC cops “Burkhard Bilger” interviews often have to stage fake drugs-in-the-crowd incidents in order to keep their dogs sharp (actual drugs-in-the-crowd incidents being yet another on the long list of things the city’s current mayor has effectively outlawed). But these men and their dogs have seen plenty of real action, and everybody our author talks to concurs: dogs make a big difference:
“One canine team can do the work of ten or fifteen guys in a gang situation,” Lieutenant John Pappas, head of the squad, told me. “It’s ‘Fuck you! I’m not going anywhere.’ But when you throw in some jaws and paws – holy shit! It changes the landscape.” In 2010, one station on the Lexington Avenue line was hit by twenty felonies in a matter of months. Once a canine unit was sent in, the number dropped to zero. “It’s like pulling up in an M1 Abrams battle tank,” Pappas said.
Given the incredible statistics operating in New York, I supposed I should count my blessings Boston hasn’t likewise increased its use of police dogs in the subways; such dogs invariably stop what they’re doing, come straight over to me, and go all rubbery with face-smooching joy – which causes all their human handles to pop the safeties on their revolvers and demand to see every last used book in my shoulder bag. Sigh. Reading about such an encounter is a lot more enjoyable than trying to talk yourself out of one.
February 2nd, 2012
One of the most tempting tricks in the craft of professional book-reviewing is the ‘cattle call’ round-up review, where either a lazy review editor or a vainglorious reviewer see two or three or even more books published roughly simultaneously on roughly the same subject and experience the same little light-bulb of an idea: Hey! Why not lump all these books into one review! The editor looks at it from a reductively pragmatic view: why run three separate reviews of these three new books on ancient Rome when you can just run one slightly longer review that covers all three? And the reviewer looks at it (if we construe generously here) from an enthusiastic view: if I lump all three of these books on the Huguenots together, my piece can be a soaring, all-inclusive discussion of the whole Huguenot Weltanschauung.
Even a quick glance at either of these views will show how boneheaded they are. The editor’s view is wrong because it vitiates the very idea of reviewing in favor of some dippy concept of covering ground – it offends both authors and readers by acting on the assumption that books on roughly similar subjects almost constitute connected chapters in one bigger, ongoing book … anything rather than contemplate the possibility that two simultaneous books on the Boer War might each be worthy of a full-length review. Each of the authors of those two books certainly believes his work merits stand-alone examination, and no reader who reads both of them will come away saying, “there really wasn’t any difference between the two.” It’s book-criticism’s job to make distinctions, to differentiate intelligently – if for no other reason (and there is no higher reason) than to help guide the reader. And if the book review editor’s view is predictably venal, the book reviewer’s view is even worse – the only possible mental justification for lumping a handful of books together into a discussion of a topic is plain and simple egotism: what it says is, “Regardless of the paltry books involved, the readers are really here for me; they don’t want to know how the authors of these books deal with their topic – they really want to know how I myself deal with that topic.” The main convenience of the two views is that they reinforce each other – so you see this kind of thing often in the Penny Press. It can be maddening.
It can be maddening for the very obvious reason that if a reviewer is allegedly ‘reviewing’ four different books in the space he’d ordinarily use for one book, he’s not suddenly, miraculously going to become four times a better writer than he was last month. Instead, he’s going to do one-fourth as good a job (or, in the case of the worst offenders, he’s going to be four times as crappy as usual). The reviewer is still going to get paid (sometimes, ironically, paid more), and the book review editor is still going to clear space off his pile of galley copies – the only losers will be the authors and the readers. I always feel sorry for a writer who spends six years working on a biography of Fanny Burney only to find a second biography of Fanny Burney hitting the bookstore shelves at the same time; regardless of how different they might be, those two books are destined to be chained together in every book review in the world, for their entire production cycle. And I reserve a little bit of sorry for myself, too, since I inevitably come out of those two-for-one pieces feeling ripped off – either still curious about a book that was purportedly just reviewed or irritated that a good (or bad) book was given only glancing treatment.
So I was feeling plenty ripped off by the time I finished the latest New York Review of Books, in which there were a whopping SIX combo-reviews, ‘covering’ a total of 19 books. Bad enough when one of these combo-reviews happens once in an issue, but six times? If you take out the purely-political muckraking pieces in the issue, the ones that had nothing to do with books or the arts at all but were just straight (and liberal, and outraged) reporting, over half the pieces in this issue were these frantic, multi-pronged things that are neither essay nor book review but combine the worst traits of both.
A bad example was R. J. W. Evans’ review of two recent biographies of Bismarck, one by Jean-Paul Bled and the other by Jonathan Steinberg. Both those books are meaty and intelligent works, although Bled’s book is not very much the lesser of the two but is also, as Evans points out, a reprint nearly a decade old. But at least Evans sticks to ‘only’ two books, and at least he eventually cedes that Steinberg’s book is the one he liked better. The reader of his combo-review is treated to his admittedly very entertaining summary-at-length of Bismarck’s life and times, but a reader wanting to know more about what each of these two books is like will have to look elsewhere.
But a much, much worse example this time around was Richard Dorment’s octopoidal review of not one, not two, but four recent books and one museum exhibit on the Pre-Raphaelites in general and the fascinating Edward Burne-Jones in particular – a total of some 1500 words of prose, ‘covered’ in less than three pages of review. If you factor in the necessity Dorment apparently felt to say something about that exhibit, that means he’d have at most about 400 words to say about each of the books involved. It virtually guarantees that none of those books (or that poor exhibit) will be treated well or even fairly – and sure enough, that’s exactly the case. Dorment spends almost all of his piece recounting (again, entertainingly – but if that was hardly a justification in Evans’ case, how much less is it here?) the facts and themes of Burne-Jones’ life, leaving himself virtually no space to talk about the books listed at the top of his ‘review.’ And the extra irritation here comes from the fact that one of those books, Fiona McCarthy’s The Last Pre-Raphaelite, is actually a sumptuous, long-researched, witty, and extremely well-written masterpiece, the best biography of any kind to appear yet in 2012. Dorment essentially reduces her to one footnote, in which he quibbles with her about one of her book’s most trivial points. And the fractured focus of the piece doesn’t do wonders for Dorment’s own writing; not only does he bizarrely refer to Burne-Jones as “a household name” (demonstrating pretty clearly that Dorment spends little or no time in South Boston), but he writes puzzling lines like “During its most intense phase their tumultuous relationship lasted about three years.”
Robert Franks’ extremely thought-provoking The Darwin Economy, Sarah Burns’ gripping The Central Park Five, and even Wendell Berry’s surprisingly engaging The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford are just three of the other books to be slighted in this manner (they’re the other three I’ve read myself, and all three of them deserved stand-alone pieces), and it the cumulative effect made me wonder if perhaps the New York Review of BOOKS was devoting too much of its limited page-space to coverage of the decidedly non-literary political scene. It’s not the first time I’ve wondered that, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
January 22nd, 2012
My acquaintances frequently wonder about my long-standing affection for ‘lad mags’ – burly, testosterone-fuelled items like Outside or Men’s Journal or even the nearly-brainless Details (not to be confused with Maxim, which actually is brainless, one of the only magazines I know that’s actually content-free), and perhaps there’s some snickering about obvious answers. But no: the bedrock of my fascination with magazines entirely devoted to advocating products, libations, attitudes, and activities I loathe is that the best of these kinds of magazines are never lazy – they work on me, parts of them do, and even when that work is negative (in the form of irritation), it’s a kind of stimulation I want in what I read and too often don’t get.
Take the latest issue of Outside, for instance. Outside has been around for 35 years, and in that time it’s featured not only a whole slate of idiotic fist-pumping puff-pieces and profiles of the young male tobacco addicts of Hollywood past and present but also some damn fine writing from authors I love – people like Tim Cahill and David Quammen. The magazine is slick and filled with ads, so it’s got enough money to pay its contributors – and to pay them well enough to draw some of the best. In virtually every issue, alongside the annoying crap pandering to a perceived demographic, there’s something good enough to cut out and save.
The latest issue is no exception, and it starts off right away (well, almost right away – first up is the cover, featuring the photo of a young man I don’t recognize) with something I’ve recently come to hate so virulently I can hardly see straight when I encounter it. There it is in Christopher Keyes’ idiotic “Between the Lines” editorial note introducing one of the main features of this issue, a long list of “Things We Like”:
Of all the article formats concocted by the print and online media, perhaps none is more disrespected than the lowly list. Haters gonna hate, and when we run one we reliably receive letters and e-mails containing slurs like “listicle” and protestations that “Outside used to be about great storytelling,” but now it’s nothing but “fluff and lists.”
You can spot it right away, can’t you? Yes, it’s that moronic line I see everywhere these days: “Haters gonna hate,” and this isn’t even the only time it appears in this issue. It crops up again in Bill Gifford’s otherwise first-rate myth-busting look at Lance Armstrong. When Armstrong learns that Gifford is writing about him, he responds, “You need to come down here and see what we do. I know you’re a hater and you’re gonna write what you write, but I just want you to see it.”
The reason I hate this stupid little meme is equally obvious: it’s a pre-set way for obnoxious people to avoid legitimate criticism – in fact, it’s meant to undermine the very concept of criticism. You decide to hold a Beverly Hills fund-raiser for famine relief and spend $4500 on catered food, most of which is simply thrown away, but if somebody points out the odious contradictions, they’re a hater, and you don’t have to listen to them or, Heaven forfend, amend your future behavior because, you know, haters gonna hate. Criticism becomes a tic, a pathological, uncontrollable defect of the critic – and as such, it can’t be warranted, it can’t possibly apply to you. “I know you’re a hater” means “I’ve given myself a rationalization that allows me to pre-emptively ignore anything you say.” It paves the way for absolutely air-tight arrogance. As a linguistic fad, it can’t disappear soon enough for me, but then, its parent-sentiment, “He who is not with me is against me,” has managed to stick around quite some time…
But even in the midst of such irritation, there is jubilation as well – as in finding a new article by the great Matthew Power, this one on travelling to the one place on Earth I’ve never been: Australia. It’s a classic Outside article, an immersion in a faraway place, and as usual, Power floods it with fantastic prose:
Flocks of rainbow lorikeets hurtle past. A comb-crested jacana stilts its way across a skein of lily pads. Two big eyes rise to the murky surface, the pupils narrowing in the morning light. With a sweep of its crenellated tail, a 12-foot saltwater crocodile strokes alongside our boat, close enough to touch if you’re tired of your arm. Darrington informs us that these animals can jump six feet out of the water. Soon they’re everywhere, slipping down the banks and submerging like reptilian U-boats. The crocs were hunted to near extinction in the 1960s, but the population exploded after they were declared a protected species in 1971. Now they have the run of the place. A recent survey found 280 “salties,” which are larger and more dangerous than their freshwater cousins, in this billabong.
Soon, two adults begin thrashing on the far bank. One breaks free and glides slowly across our bow. There’s a ragged stub where its right front leg was moments ago but no blood – a crocodile’s circulatory system can divert blood flow away from missing limbs. I ask Darrington how long a person could make it in the water here. “About 25 seconds,” he replies.
This issue also has a gripping article in which Patrick Symmes tries to determine exactly who stole his bike one day and what happened to it. This, too, is classic Outside: pulling you in to pieces about subjects you’d have sworn you didn’t care about. The fact that there were two such fantastic articles in this issue (and the listicle wasn’t bad either) more than justifies my attention.
It’s a bit tougher to make the same case for something like Details, which can very often be a vapid vehicle for fashion ads and cologne samples. Here, I’ll admit, a whole issue can go by without anything an intelligent reader can sink his teeth into. This current issue is saved by two fairly reliable elements: fantastic freelancer (and unapologetic cutie-patootie) Howie Kahn and not-so-bad-himself Hollywood slab o’ beef Channing Tatum. Kahn, like Power, is one of those freelancers whose work it would be almost criminal to miss – it’s strong, often funny, sometimes even elegant stuff no matter what the subject matter is. In this case, the subject matter helps out: Tatum seems to provide lots of picaresque stuff in his interviews for the glossies. I’m not always sure what I make of this current Hollywood tobacco addict – that he has no actual acting ability almost goes without saying (that modern path was broken by, among others, Mark Wahlberg, and I always get a kick out of watching his movie reviewers come up with new and more inventive euphemisms for what one of them called his “post-modern acting limitations”)(Marky-Mark gained what acting credibility he has by doing a stripper movie – and I’ll give you one guess what Tatum’s next project is) and is almost unimportant: even if somebody were dumb enough to offer this kid Hamlet, we’d be even dumber to go and see it. But “star power” hasn’t always been about acting, and I sometimes think Tatum is the natural successor of a perfect example of that: I think he’d be irresistibly compelling as Sam Spade.
In any case, he has a delightful tendency to get himself and his interviewer good and properly stewed, and the article, in addition to being simple good fun to read, is accompanied by some shots of Tatum’s adorable dog Lulu, whose adoration of her master both can’t be faked and speaks well of him as a person, regardless of his thespian chops. I’d have read this piece for Kahn’s writing even if it had been about a, shudder, starlet – but Lulu made everything even better.
September 9th, 2011
Ordinarily, the running disagreements I have with the Penny Press are matters of degree, of shading, and they’re conducted sotto voce over a heaping plate of food in the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant I frequent solely for the purpose of keeping up with all my periodicals. It’s rare that these disagreements aren’t essentially pleasant things, the rewarding tingling of stimulating disagreement; it’s rare that I’m confronted with things that are flat-out wrong.
But I was cursing over my kimchi bokkeumbap this time around, and of course things started to go wrong at the mention of the ten-year 9-11 anniversary. Every periodical in the Western world has latched onto that anniversary and used it as an occasion to unleash some threat-matrix-level amounts of pretentious bloviation onto an innocent reading public, and The New Yorker is at the front of the pack (in defense of the concept, New York magazine’s dedicated issue last week was superb). The heart of the problem is the seeming inability of pretentious people to understand the difference between a momentous event happening and a momentous event happening to them. Unless you were one of the survivors or one of the victims, the 9-11 attacks didn’t happen to you – as impossible as it may be for you to believe, considering your SAT scores, you were only a bystander to the events that tragic morning.
As these commemorative editions continue to flow off the newsstands, the pretentious young writers providing the copy are reacting to that bystander status in two ways: by ignoring it (“I was on my stoop in Dumbo playing educational games with my two kids, Castorp and Always Question, when we were hit“) or exalting it (“I was in a tiny village 200 miles upland from Puerto Mayo, just about to file the story that would take down a local drug kingpin, when I happened to glance at the bar’s little TV and saw grainy footage that would very nearly make me miss my deadline …”). Neither of these two approaches is exactly preferable to respectful silence, but then, editors don’t a dollar a word for respectful silence.
If anything, though, the commentaries are worse than the commemorations, and that brings me to George Packer writing in the 12 September issue of The New Yorker. Specifically, to this paragraph (although the piece he writes contains many like it):
A great many counterfactual histories could be written about those [George W. Bush] years. If Al Gore had been allowed to take office, if bin Laden had been captured at Tora Bora, if the focus had stayed on Al Qaeda, if real nation-building had been tried in Afghanistan, if America hadn’t gone to war in Iraq. All these alternative paths would have been helpful, but none of them would have been decisive, because the deeper problem lay in an ongoing decline that was greater than any single event or policy.
This isn’t a question of shading – this is just plain wrong. That extremely even-handed ‘we-musn’t-be-seen-to-judge’ non-committal might be de rigeur in the Whole Foods aisles in Cambridge, but it smacks of craven equivocation out in the rest of the world. In reality, every single one of those ‘alternative paths’ Packer writes about would indeed have been utterly ‘decisive,’ and it’s borderline delusional to say otherwise. Not decisive, if George W. Bush hadn’t stolen the election? Not decisive, if we’d had a thinking individual (with extensive experience of both government and foreign policy) in the White House instead of a biddable idiot? Not decisive, if the leader of Al-Qaeda had been caught and Al-Qaeda itself destroyed in the immediate aftermath of 9-11? This is serene historical contextualization run absolutely amok, and it chaffed me to read it. The real way to desecrate the memory of 9-11 isn’t to forget the anniversary – it’s to affect to being blithe about the moral imperatives at play on that day.
Naturally, I turned to the mighty TLS for some relief, but alas – none was forthcoming. Not only was the provocation on the cover in pretty poor taste (in case you’re wondering – and you’re not, because you were never meant to – the ‘them’ refers to ‘canonical authors’ not gays), and not only was the rotting fraud Michel Houellebecq given serious attention by a writer who ought to know better, but even in the issue’s hindquarters, in the little ‘In Brief’ reviews that are usually such a joy, there were nettles. Specifically, somebody named Jacques Testard reviews Alan Jacobs’ well-intentioned but soporific book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, plays with it a bit like a bored kitten, and then finishes up his 200 words with this little doozy:
Readers of this review, however, will be well connected to the world of books, if not to a Kindle. The Pleasures of Reading in the [sic] Age of Distraction is an informed piece of democratic didacticism, but those confirmed readers of literature have no need to look here. Just remember that it’s OK to read anything, anything at all, so long as it gives you pleasure.
Well, yes, I muttered over my zeeuwse bolus, but that kind of dictum is also mindlessly blithe. Granted, in a free country without censorship, it’s OK to read anything, anything at all, that gives you pleasure – but if you stop there, your reading life will be pretty damn cramped. ‘OK’ here is clearly meant to shield serial readers of romances or Star Trek novels from the criticism of their betters, but it gets a little too definitive for its own good. I often premise my own book-recommendations to strangers along the same initial lines – what sorts of things do you like? – but my end goal is to move them a bit beyond their comfort zones, not to keep them happily penned in their back yards forever. After all, pleasure is a complex thing, and (especially when it comes to reading) parts of it have to be learned. Yes, you should feel OK reading anything, anything at all, that gives you pleasure – condescending readers are missing the big picture – but if you blithely stop there, as this Testard person implies you should, you’ll miss the big picture too.
Turning from the TLS, I had scant hope of finding relief anywhere else, especially in the customarily-infuriating pages of Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair. This is the venue where I often find the very best long-form freelance writing anywhere on the newsstand, but it’s also the place to find some of the most arrogant, shoddy workmen in the business, and my nerves were already frayed. And at first, this current issue boded poorly. True, it was a relief that the editors decided to forego a 9-11 cover-theme, favoring us instead with what I presume is a CGI close-up of some forthcoming Hollywood space alien (or is it abstract art? Could it be a rendition of the scar-pits of lower Manhattan on 9-12?). But once you’re done being frightened by whatever that is on the cover, you’re forced to wade through the first 100 pages before you get to any actual content. Those initial pages are wholly given over to fashion ads, which in and of themselves are invitations to incomprehension. True to form, this current batch has some high points
… and very, very low points
But miraculously, relief did indeed arrive, and from the place I least expected it. Right in the middle of a long, almost physically excruciating piece recounting debut novelist Chad Harbach’s rise to glory, there’s a simple and utterly restorative little paragraph about the much-maligned publishing industry:
And yet every single person I met while writing this article – the publishers, the editors, the marketing and sales people – genuinely loved books. That’s why they were working in a business that, in the end, wasn’t particularly lucrative. They liked reading books and cared enough about them to devote their lives to making them. For every company or editor or agent who no longer cared, there were a number of younger people who did.
I’ve been connected with that industry in one way or another for many, many years, and I can attest to the truth of every word of that paragraph – well, except for the one four words from the end. In the publishing world as everywhere else, ‘younger’ is still mostly a well-deserved pejorative term: it’s the older reps and publicists and editors and publishers and even novelists who tend to have long-cultivated enthusiasm for the written word (I know of roughly 150 young novelists currently working in the field, and if you handed each of them a check for $1,000,000 and told them it was valid only on condition they never write another word of fiction, 147 of them would instantly agree). A one-word quibble is hardly significant, on such a grim Penny Press day as this.
I’ll have to hope for better luck with the London Review of Books, in due time.